‘Coming of age trip’ like no other

Teens reach North Bay on Day 50 of 60-day journey to raise funds for food banks

North Bay Mayor Al McDonalds talks to the six teens taking part in Canoe4Covid, Friday, at the North Bay waterfront. PJ Wilson/The Nugget

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The six 18-year-olds had the “nine-o’clock rule” when they finished their day’s paddling.

“When the sun went down, you didn’t leave the tent,” Georges Kirijian explains. “You would look outside, and there was just a wall of bugs.”

The sound was so much that, for the first couple of nights, they thought they were listening to a train. But it was just the insects flying around their camp.

Kirijian is one of six teens who began a 60-day, 2,000-kilometre trek at Wabakimi Provincial Park, north of Thunder Bay, June 26. They expect to complete it Aug. 24 in Ottawa.

Team members include Cailan Robinson, Nolan Aziz, Tim Mulligan, Will Vyse and Jacob Heisey.

Their aim was to raise $1,000 a day, or $60,000, for Food Banks Canada, with half the funds going to Indigenous communities across the country.

“This has been a dream for me,” Kirijian said Friday after the team pulled in to North Bay, before portaging across the city to Trout Lake. “I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s probably been the best 50 days of my life.”

All six graduated from high school this year, and Kirijian says the best way to describe the journey has been a “coming of age trip. It’s the best grad trip you could have asked for.”

All six worked together last summer at Camp Ahmek in Algonquin Park where they were counsellors-in-training and canoe instructors.

Mina Bolpe, left, Assadour Kirijian and Paula Maurutto scan Lake Nipissing for the first sign of the Canoe4Covid team shortly before it arrived at the waterfront Friday afternoon.PJ Wilson/The Nugget

While they had planned to return to the camp this summer, the COVID-19 pandemic forced a change in their plans.

“When they realized there was going to be no camp, they were talking in my basement and put this together,” Assadour Kirijian, Georges’ father, explains.

He helped by reaching out to Food Banks Canada, and the boys started contacting sponsors to help with the effort.

“They managed to do all the logistics,” setting out the route and setting up a website for their effort. Their parents helped with food drops along the route, and helping them get to the start point in Armstrong, Ont.

“At first when they said they were going to do this, we weren’t sure if they were serious,” Paula Maurutto, Cailan’s mother, says. “When we realized they were going to do it, it was our job to support them. It’s for such a great cause.”

And while all six teens are experienced canoeists, that didn’t mean the parents couldn’t have some sleepless nights, especially at the beginning.

“When you’re accustomed to hearing from them every day, and you don’t hear from them for a week, it’s nerve-wracking,” Maurutto admits. “But they’re resourceful. They figure things out. But you do start worrying.”

“You go through different stages,” Daniel Robinson admits. “At first it was sheer incredulousness. Then you resign yourself to it happening. They’re all adults now. They’re all 18.

“They figured everything out for themselves. What it would be like, the routes, working with the sponsors.”

“It’s been a great trip,” Aziz says. “Everyone has worked together and been supportive.

“There have been a couple of minor injuries”

He had his right arm wrapped after dropping a canoe on it during one of the portages. X-rays in Sudbury showed that it wasn’t broken, and he soldiered on with the rest of the team.

They also battled strong currents on Lake Nipissing as they crossed Friday from French River Provincial Park, where they had camped Thursday night, delaying their arrival on the North Bay waterfront by a few minutes.

They also were held up by some storms on Lake Superior, but they rode them out by just staying on shore.

Aziz says the trip is somewhat symbolic for them. They have all graduated from high school, they are going their own ways in September.

“It’s like transitioning to manhood,” he says.

The six 18-year-olds canoing across Ontario in Canoe4Covid portage along Cassells Street, Friday afternoon, from Lake Nipissing to Trout Lake.PJ Wilson/The Nugget

And their parents, most of whom haven’t seen their sons since they set out, were beside themselves with anticipation.

“These are incredible young men,” Scott Mulligan says. “Their fortitude, their determination . . . they had situations they had to deal with, figure out on their own, and they did it.”

“They went out as boys and they came back as men,” one parent said.

As of Friday, the team had raised $68,341.67.

The team was planning to camp on Trout Lake overnight then follow the Mattawa River before heading to Kiosk and making their way through Algonquin Provincial Park.